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Flying cheap, tired and untrained

Scott Jagow Feb 9, 2010

If you’ve ever flown a “puddle-jumper,” you might want to catch the Frontline documentary, Flying Cheap, tonight on PBS. Correspondent Miles O’Brien, a pilot himself, looks at the cheap ways and frightening lack of experience at some regional airlines.

The takeoff point for the documentary is last year’s crash of Continental flight 3407 outside Buffalo, NY. All 50 people on board were killed. For starters, it wasn’t actually a Continental plane with Continental pilots flying it. The flight was outsourced to company called Colgan Air.

Colgan is one of many smaller carriers that now handle half of all domestic flights, according to Frontline. The last six fatal crashes in the US involved such commuter flights.

What are you getting when you buy a ticket on one of these planes? Well, you may not be getting a well-paid, well-rested, seasoned pilot that’s for sure. In the clip below, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien talks to two former Colgan pilots about their low pay ($22,000 gross), the long, fatiguing hours — sleeping in chairs or at “crash pads” with other pilots — and their lack of experience.

More from O’Brien on [today’s Marketplace Morning Report] ():

Roger Cohen is president of the Regional Airlines Association. He says profit never trumps safety.

Roger Cohen: Safety is the number one priority, and there is no airline, no matter what the business arrangement, that would ever operate any aircraft at any time and risk the safety of the passengers and crew.

But Corey Heiser and other Colgan Air pilots say safety sometimes took a backseat to the bottom line at Colgan.

Heiser: The saying around the company was always “Move the rig.” And that just kinda told me that they were willing to kind of push the bounds.

O’Brien: Why were they pushin’?

Heiser: Cause if we didn’t move those airplanes they didn’t make any money.

The co-pilot of flight 3407 was 24-year-old Rebecca Shaw. She was making less than $16,000. According to the flight’s transcript, Shaw and 47-year-old Captain Marvin Renslow were discussing lack of flying time:

Renslow: But, uh, as a matter of fact I got hired with about 625 hours here.

Shaw: Oh wow.

Shaw: That’s not much for, uh, back when you got hired.

Renslow: No but, uh, out of that … 250 hours was, uh, part 121 turbine, multi-engine turbine.

Shaw: Oh that’s right yeah.

Shaw: No, but all these guys are complaining, they’re saying, you know, how we were supposed to upgrade by now and … I’m thinking, you know what? I really wouldn’t mind going through a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain.

Shaw: I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. … I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’d’ve freaked out. I’d have, like, seen this much ice and thought, oh my gosh we were going to crash.

Less than five minutes later, flight 3407 went down. Safety investigators have said pilot error was a major factor. More on the Frontline piece from the Buffalo News:

“Flying Cheap” lays it all out in understandable fashion and even gets into the politics of flying. It describes how the deregulation of the airline industry in the late 1970s led to the major airlines outsourcing smaller routes to regional airlines–which don’t need to pay union wages and benefits–to get passengers cheaply to their hubs for longer flights. The regionals hire less-experienced pilots, and the pressure they put on them to fly for financial reasons can compromise safety. Additionally, the big guys avoid knowing about the difference in the safety standards of the regionals to avoid liability.

Another take from the Washington Post:

“Frontline” finds considerable fault with federal oversight, unsheathing the highlighter on the usual reams of reports. But it seems like there’s another, less examined culprit here — the American consumer, who has come to expect the best of service but the lowest of fares. That would be the business people jetting off to can’t-miss meetings and conferences, as well as the obsessed grandparents who need to be present for every toddler’s birthday. We are a nation addicted to cheap flying.

So the lower altitudes, the turbulence, the pilots dozing at the controls of twin props? That antsy, grip-the-armrest feeling? Maybe you’re getting exactly what you’ve paid for.

Another reporter says a leading aviation accident lawyer told him he has a rule with his family: No flying in propeller commuter planes in bad winter weather.

Or perhaps June sunshine either.

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